Change Your Thinking

Identifying negative thinking

Not sure if your internal dialogue is positive or negative? Some common forms of negative self-talk include:

Mental Filtering describes one type of cognitive distortion, or faulty thought pattern, that can often lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression. When thinking through a mental filter, a person is focusing only on the negative aspects of a situation and filtering out all of the positive ones. You magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones. For example, you had a great day at work. You completed your tasks ahead of time and were complimented for doing a speedy and thorough job. That evening, you focus only on your plan to do even more tasks and forget about the compliments you received.

Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them.  For instance a person who experiences this kind of thinking will also compare themselves to others or when something bad occurs, they automatically blame yourself. For example, you hear that an evening out with friends is canceled, and you assume that the change in plans is because no one wanted to be around you.

Catastrophic – Worst Case Scenario Thinking is when a person “Magnifies reality” which makes a situation seem much worse, dire, or severe than it really is.  Something as simple as driving-through Starbucks can turn into a rollercoaster ride. For example, the drive-through gets your order wrong and you automatically think that this is an omen reflecting that the rest of your day will be a disaster. Catastrophism can lead to depression in some individuals. Catastrophizing can be a result of or cause of anxiety. Every person tends to catastrophize from time to time.

Polarizing Thinking is a cognitive error that is a close cousin to over-generalization and filtering. Polarized thinking sounds like this: “We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It’s black and white, all or nothing.” This is an example of “black or white” (or polarized) thinking. The person is only seeing things in absolutes — that if they fail at one thing, they must fail at all things. They see things only as either good or bad. There is no middle ground. You feel that you have to be perfect or you’re a total failure. By learning to correctly identify this kind of “stinkin’ thinkin’,” a person can then answer the negative thinking back, and refute it.

Focusing on positive thinking

You can learn to turn negative thinking into positive thinking. The process is simple, but it does take time and practice — you’re creating a new habit, after all. Here are some ways to think and behave in a more positive and optimistic way:

  • Identify areas to change. If you want to become more optimistic and engage in more positive thinking, first identify areas of your life that you usually think negatively about, whether it’s work, your daily commute or a relationship. You can start small by focusing on one area to approach in a more positive way.
  • Check yourself. Periodically during the day, stop and evaluate what you’re thinking. If you find that your thoughts are mainly negative, try to find a way to put a positive spin on them.
  • Be open to humor. Give yourself permission to smile or laugh, especially during difficult times. Seek humor in everyday happenings. When you can laugh at life, you feel less stressed. Think of your daily life as a new Seinfeld episode.
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle. Aim to exercise for about 30-60 minutes on most days of the week. If you can’t do that I recommend breaking it up into 10-minute chunks of time during the day. Exercise can positively affect mood and reduce stress. Follow a healthy diet to fuel your mind and body. And learn techniques to manage stress.
  • Surround yourself with positive people. Make sure those in your life are positive, supportive personalities you can depend on to give helpful conversations and feedback. Negative personalities may increase your stress level and make you doubt your ability to manage stress in healthy ways.
  • Practice positive self-talk. Start by following one simple rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. Be non-judgmental, forgiving and encouraging with yourself. If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what is good about you. Reframe that stinkin thinken, and re-evaluate the validity of your thought.

Changing your view of reality changes your internal dialogue, which allows you to rethink negative thought patterns. Frame of reference (F.O.R.) are the mechanisms people use to interpret and react to their perception of reality day to day. These internal unconscious thoughts provide psychological security regardless of whether they are positive or negative, wanted or unwanted. The reason for this type of bias in thinking is to preserve and maintaining the comfort of a person’s operating behavior referred to as the “status quo.” People tend to believe what they hear or see. Yet the reality is that they focus on what they expect to hear or see, discounting new information that is inconsistent with their frame of reference, which would make them question their status quo.

Here are some examples of negative self-talk and how you can apply a positive thinking twist to them:

Negative Thinking                 Positive Thinking

I’ve never done it before. It’s an opportunity to learn something new. Can’t wait to see where this will take me.
It’s too complicated. I’ll tackle it from a different angle. This will be an exciting challenge
I don’t have the resources. Necessity is the mother of invention. Who do I know that can pitch in.
I’m too lazy to get this done. I wasn’t able to fit it into my schedule, but I can re-examine some priorities.
There’s no way it will work. I can try to make it work. In any case the process will be better than it was.
It’s too radical a change. Let’s take a chance and create something new.
No one bothers to communicate with me. I’ll see if I can open the channels of communication.
I’m not going to get any better at this. I’ll give it another try and get better each time.

As you can see and feel in the above statements, managing the transition state from negative thinking to positive thinking hold both danger and opportunity. The feeling of danger because initiating a change in the brain’s embedded thought process requires questioning established frames of reference and acceptance of new information. People tend to feel anxious, tense, and uncertain. Managing negative self-talk means managing ambiguity.

The opportunity is that the intense feelings result in initiating change allowing the person to rethinking their framework of positive thinking.  This transition state can be accessed because people’s need to reduce the feeling of anxiety which then promotes a desire to seek out and use new information to create a new, stable way of viewing the world. This is when there is the greatest potential for changing self-talk.